IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce was first to take the stage, welcoming delegates and introducing the key themes of the day. His prologue was supported by the now-infamous clip of then-Whitehouse Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first press conference, in which he offered ‘alternative facts’ regarding the size of the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration.
Professor Pearce also introduced the first keynote speaker Professor Susan Banducci, Professor in Politics and Director of the Exeter Q-Step Centre at the University of Exeter. Opening with a quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson – “information is the currency of democracy” – Professor Banducci framed fake news as part of a spectrum of media misinformation that poses a threat to democratic processes. She highlighted the speed with which misinformation can spread, but also presented data demonstrating that the most-shared stories do not always correlate with the most-visited sources. Posing the question of whether fact-checking can counteract misinformation in practice, she then shared her own work – which demonstrates that while corrections may have an initial impact on readers’ views of fake news, this effect is temporal; over time, readers regress towards their original position.
Building on Professor Banducci’s interrogation of the processes by which fake news spreads online, IPR Prize Fellow and Lecturer at King’s College London Dr Jonathan Gray next took the stage to chair a panel entitled The Social Life of Fake News Online. He was joined by panelists and collaborators Dr Anders Munk, Irina Khaldarova and Liliana Bounegru, who together discussed the origins of fake news online, the lifecycle of an article of fake news, and the eventual appropriation of such articles by political actors.
After a break for lunch, the conversation resumed with a second panel chaired and introduced by Dr Nicholas Startin, Head of the University of Bath’s Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Co-Editor of The Routledge Handbook of Euroscepticism. Brexit: Post-Truth Politics in Action took the EU referendum campaign as a case study, and panelists Denny Pencheva, Liz Gerard and Dr Charlotte Galpin explored the event from various perspectives.
Guardian journalist and author Matthew d’Ancona offered the second keynote of the day. This incisive and wide-ranging anatomy of the post-truth era, which examined both its societal precedents and its likely impacts, drew heavily on his new book Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. His perception of ‘post-truth’, he explained, was of something new and unlike the often-caricatured propensity of politicians to treat truth with flexibility.
The “great cacophony” of the web, d’Ancona suggested, “for all its wonders […] does amplify the shrill, and disguise complexity”. He raised grave concerns, echoing Professor Banducci, about a flow of information that is dominated by peer-to-peer interaction and curated by efficient algorithms “responsive to history and preference, but blind to veracity”.
The final session of the day saw Professor Nick Pearce engaging in conversation with The Right Honourable Professor The Lord Blunkett, former cabinet minister and Home Secretary. Having worked closely with this distinguished statesman in the past, Professor Pearce was ideally placed to discuss the finer points of contemporary politics with Lord Blunkett, and interviewed him on topics ranging from his early career as Leader of Sheffield City Council to his opinions on Donald Trump’s presidency.
Always forthright and frequently drawing laughter with his wit, Lord Blunkett described the challenges that the Labour Party has faced during his membership, which has spanned several decades, as well as the changes he has seen in Sheffield, where he was MP for Brightside and Hillsborough for 28 years.
The one-day conference concluded with a drinks reception in The Edge.